Monday, October 24, 2011

(empo-tuulwey) (empo-tymshft) The multi-user phone?

First, a little personal history.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, I used a mixture of single-user and multi-user computers - dedicated BASIC machines, UNIX computers, THEOS computers, and Macintosh computers. While the BASIC machines and the Macs could be used by multiple people, they weren't really designed for this purpose. UNIX and THEOS (formerly Oasis) computers, however, were specifically designed with multiple user accounts, and could be used by several people at the same time.

Decades later, when I switched from Macintosh to Windows computers for home use, I always configured our family's home computers with multiple accounts. No, these computers could not be used by multiple people simultaneously. However, configuration of multiple accounts allowed setting of preferences for each member of the family. Each of us could have our own music libraries. Each of us could have our own Internet home pages. And, when our daughter was very young, we could implement parental controls on her account. (In the end, they were more trouble than they were worth, since some of the controls blocked religious pages; kind of tough when you're attending a Lutheran school.)

I was thinking about this recently when I read a thread on Google+. The thread, from Marvin Ryan Vista, was entitled Siri the Pimp. The thread alludes to the fact (also mentioned by Leo Laporte) that if you ask Siri particular questions, it will use its GPS capabilities and available cloud data to provide you with a list of nearby escort services.

On the Google+ thread, Chris Karson and I discussed some of the ramifications of this. Karson was disturbed by the ramifications of this feature, and noted that "kids will use these devices." I wondered, however, how Apple could draw the line between what information to present and what not to present - escort services, after all, are listed in telephone books.

Another participant in the thread, Wanda Hollis, also noted that children could use these devices, and wondered if anyone had made parental filters for phones.

At this point, I noted:

This would require the concept of a multi-user phone.

On the surface, it seems silly. A cellular phone is one of the most personal devices that you have. While there are families that share a single cell phone between family members, in most cases each member of the family (or at least those over the age of 13, or over the age of 7, or whatever) has his or her own phone.

But I'm sure that most of us have run into situations where we have to share our phone. This especially happens with smartphones. Maybe you're stuck in a waiting room with a kid, and all of a sudden the kid says, "I'm bored." If you had a multi-user phone, then the kid could play Angry Birds and not play whatever adult stuff you may have on your phone.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that this was not enough. Some applications, such as web browsers and voice-based services, tap into a variety of information sources, including some sources that you might not want your kid to view. Some people may choose to restrict access to these items altogether, but some would prefer some type of...parental controls.

In the United States, the cellular service providers themselves offer parental controls, according to Paul O'Reilly at the Online Mom. (Yes, I just referred to "Paul O'Reilly at the Online Mom.) Regarding content filters, AT&T and Verizon seem to have the most sophisticated ones for mobile phones. Even these services, however, do not appear to be customizable by the parent (how do I block Dallas Cowboys content?). In addition, the content filters apply to all users on a single phone - again, multi-user capabilities would be good here.

In the end, this is just another reminder that mobile phones are computers, and need to be treated in the same way that computers are. Although I'm not ready to buy an uninterruptible power supply for my phone just yet...
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